It wasn’t until the Orient Express was nearing the Hungarian frontier, about two hours out of Vienna, that I found I was traveling on the passport of a murdered man.
I’d been alone in my compartment for most of the time, reading the Budapest papers and planning my mission to Hungary, my first visit since the end of the war. It was good to be in the luxurious international train. Snow had fallen heavily since we’d pulled out of the Westbahnhof in Vienna, and there was a biting north wind.
The girl entered the compartment just after the Orient had flashed through the bombed-out ruins of Bruck-an-der-Leithe. I had wiped the mist off the window and was watching the station lights flicker through the falling snow. At first I thought the door had been opened by the Wagons-Lits porter or the dining-car steward to tell me dinner was ready. Then I heard a woman’s voice say in French, "My god, you’re here. I thought you’d been—"
I’ll always remember that urgent, low voice. It stopped abruptly when I turned to show my face. The girl was tall and slender, somewhere in her middle twenties.
"I’m terribly sorry. I’ve made a mistake." She turned her head to check the number on the compartment door. "No, this is number seven, isn’t it?" She glanced at the baggage rack above my head. When she looked at me there was complete disbelief in the dark face. "I thought you were someone else." She paused. "You even look a great deal like him."
"Perhaps you’re in the wrong car," I said. "Are you sure you want car twenty-two?"
"Yes, car twenty-two." She pointed to the rack. "That’s my baggage. I put it there before we left the station." She took her ticket from her pocket and studied it. "Compartment seven, car twenty-two. There’s no mistake."
I checked my ticket again, and it was correct. There are two seats in a second-class compartment when the sleeping-car is used for daytime travel.
There was bewilderment in the girl’s wide-set black eyes. I found her extremely attractive. Her raven-black hair was parted and drawn behind her ears, and her cheeks were a little hollowed so that her cheekbones and the firm line of her jaw showed clearly. She was wearing a gray tweed suit with a frilly blouse and she carried a blue velvet beret in her hand.
She hesitated, and for a moment I thought she would leave the compartment, but she finally sat beside me, and I offered her the Hungarian newspapers. "No, thank you. I’m afraid I don’t read Hungarian." The puzzled light was still in her eyes. She turned to me. "Would you mind telling me how you got this seat?"
"Not at all. It’s very simple. The Wagons-Lits office in Vienna swore the Orient was sold out. But I’ve usually found that at least one person fails to show up at the station. I took a chance and got aboard. This was the only vacant seat, and I bought it from the porter after the train started."
The girl was quiet a moment, as if she were trying to imagine what had caused the other man to miss the train, the man whose seat I’d taken. "Is there another train tonight from Vienna to Budapest?"
"I don’t think so," I said. "There’s a local tomorrow morning. But there’s the Russian plane tonight. It gets to Budapest before we do." I didn’t want to frighten her but I couldn’t help adding, "It isn’t very safe. I wouldn’t want to take it in this weather. The pilot hedgehops all the way to follow the tracks." I was about to tell her of the trip I’d made in a Russian plane from Budapest to Bucharest with the pilot using an oil company’s road map to guide him, but something in her expression told me she wasn’t in the mood for levity.
The girl said, "Have you ever been to Budapest?" even though she’d seen me reading the Hungarian newspapers. Maybe she thought I’d picked up the language at Berlitz.
"Yes," I said, "I was living in Budapest when the war started. I know it very well. It’s the most beautiful city in the world—or it was before the Germans and the Russians blew it apart."
She accepted a cigarette from my case, and I lit it. I asked her if she knew Budapest. She shook her head, and I noticed the blue highlights in the midnight-black of her hair. "Not at all," she said. "I’ve never been in this part of Europe before." I wondered about her nationality. Her French was grammatically perfect, but the accent was off somewhere.
"Could I get back to Vienna tonight? Could I get a train from the border?"
Maybe she was on her honeymoon. That would account for her distress. But there weren’t any rings on her long, slender fingers.
I knew there weren’t any trains from the frontier that night—I’d learned the timetable by heart—but I felt sorry for her. I said, "Let’s look it up. There must be a railway guide in the porter’s compartment. I’ll get it."
I opened the door and bumped into a man in the corridor. I excused myself and he grunted, but he didn’t move and I had to wedge past him. He was leaning on the rail, apparently engrossed in watching the melting snowflakes slide down the heated glass. I didn’t pay much attention to him except to notice he was short and squat, with a bullet head that could have made him almost any nationality in Central Europe.
The railway guide, which I took back to the compartment, showed the westbound Orient had already passed us on its run to the English Channel. The only train back to Vienna would leave Budapest at six the following morning and the frontier station shortly after ten.
The girl bit her lip. "Is there a place where I could spend the night at the border?" Her long fingers were twisting and untwisting a lace handkerchief in her lap.
"I’m afraid there isn’t," I said. "Hegyshalom, the border town, is a pretty primitive place." I added, "But they wouldn’t let you off the train, anyway. The whole area is a Russian military zone."
I thought I saw something close to despair in her black eyes. It made me say, "I don’t think you ought to worry. I’ll be glad to escort you to your hotel. You can send a telegram to Vienna. You can telephone, I think, if it’s important enough."
She stood up and went over to the window and looked out for a minute or two without speaking. Then she turned and left the compartment.
I figured I had troubles enough of my own without looking for more. I picked up one of the Budapest papers which carried a piece I wanted to read again on the Hungarian steel industry but I’d scarcely scanned the first paragraph when the girl came back. She slammed the door and drew the bolt, and when she sat beside me I saw that her face was white and drawn. She ran a distracted hand through her hair. She wiped the palms of her hands with her handkerchief. It was a little while before her breathing became normal. I pretended to be reading but I watched her out of the corner of my eye.
In a minute or two, she turned to me and said in a thin voice, "I don’t know what you must think. I guess you must think—"
There was a knock on the door, sharp and insistently repeated. I put down my paper and started to get up, but the girl grabbed my sleeve. There was terror in her big black eyes.
"Please," she said, "please don’t open it. Please, you mustn’t. You’ll help me, won’t you? Tell me you’ll help me."
"Of course I’ll help you," I said. "But we can’t stay in here with the door bolted."
"Something terrible will happen if you open that door. You mustn’t."
I started getting fed up at that point. I could understand a girl being upset and overwrought because her husband or her lover had missed a train. But I couldn’t see why that was any reason to ignore knocking at the door.
"Nonsense," I said. I got up and slid back the bolt. I saw the girl had moved out of her seat and was standing behind me. I opened the door.
"Beg pardon, sir. Will you have first or second sitting at dinner, sir? First sitting when the train clears the Hungarian frontier, second sitting an hour later, sir."
When I had closed the door, I saw that the girl had buried her face in her hands. I sat beside her and said as evenly as I could, "What’s this all about? There’s no reason to be afraid of the dining-car steward. What were you saying when he knocked?"
She didn’t look up but she said, "I was saying I can’t imagine what you must think of me."
I had begun to suspect she was a girl with too much imagination and too little control of herself but I didn’t say so. I said, "I think you’re letting yourself get hysterical over nothing. Lots of people travel alone. You’re perfectly safe in this train. You’ve got to take hold of yourself."
The girl said, "It isn’t traveling alone. I’m not worried about that. I’ve traveled lots of times alone."
I offered her a cigarette, but she shook her head. I said, "Then what is there to worry about? Come on, forget it. I’ve got tickets for the first sitting. I think I can talk the porter into getting us a cocktail if you’d like."
She dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. She said, "I’m sorry. I don’t see why I should expect you to understand." She put her hand on my arm. "You see it’s just that I’m terribly afraid."
I don’t imagine I sounded very sympathetic. "I can see that," I said. "But you haven’t anything to be afraid of. Nobody will hurt you in Budapest. You must have been reading a lot of wild stories. I told you I’ll be glad to take you to your hotel. I’ll be glad to look after you until your friend arrives. If he doesn’t take the plane, he’ll certainly come on the morning train. I’m sure you’ll find a message from him when you get to the hotel in Budapest."
"That’s very kind of you," the girl said. "But it isn’t a friend who’s missing. It’s my employer. I’m his secretary."
"Okay," I said. "Then it’s your employer. I’ll be glad to look after you until your employer arrives." She shook her head. "He isn’t going to arrive in Budapest at all."
"Why not? Is he afraid to travel alone, too?"
The girl raised her head and looked me straight in the eye.
"He isn’t coming to Budapest," she said evenly. "He isn’t coming because he’s been murdered in Vienna."
If she wasn’t a lunatic, she was dangerously close to it. I decided to leave her and go into the dining-car for a drink.
"Oh, you can think I’m crazy but I know what I’m talking about. My employer was murdered all right. The man who killed him is right outside this door. He was in the corridor when I went out. I know he killed my employer. Now he’s following me."
I opened the door. The corridor was empty.
I decided to give one last try. "You mustn’t get hysterical. You’re letting your imagination run away with you. Lots of people miss trains every day. That doesn’t mean they’ve been murdered."
It was so much wasted breath.
"Oh, I do know what I’m saying," the girl went on. There was a wild light in her deep, black eyes. "You think I’m crazy, don’t you? You think I’m good for the madhouse, don’t you? I don’t blame you. But my employer told me he’d be killed in Vienna. He told me that man outside would kill him."
"But there’s no one outside," I insisted.
The girl shook her head. "My employer told me that on the train. I saw that man following us. My employer pointed him out to me on the train from Geneva."
I must have shown surprise at the word Geneva because Geneva was now supposed to be my home town. At least, that’s what it said in the passport I was carrying in my pocket. I must have shown surprise in my face, because the girl quickly picked it up.
"You aren’t from Geneva, are you?" She said it eagerly, as if in her highly excited state she wanted to find some link with the familiar.
I decided I might just as well start playing my role, the part I’d planned for my visit to Hungary. I was about to leave her to go into the dining-car anyway.
I said yes I came from Geneva.
"Then maybe you knew my employer?" The deliberate use of the past tense sent the chills up and down my spine.
"Perhaps I did," I said. If it would help to calm her there was no harm in pretending I’d heard of the man in a business way. I might even convince her I’d seen him alive in Vienna if that would quiet her nerves for the rest of the trip. I couldn’t expect to stay in the dining-car the whole way to Budapest. I’d have to return to the compartment and to her at some point.
I added casually, "What was his name?" I had stood up, and my hand was on the door handle when she answered.
"Marcel Blaye," she said. "B-L-A-Y-E. Oh, then you did know him?"
If you’ve ever experienced the sickening sensation of a sudden, unending drop in an abandoned elevator you’ll know how I felt. I’m sure my eyes started from my head. I felt drops of perspiration stand out on my forehead. I choked on my cigarette but I managed to stammer, "I’ve heard of Monsieur Blaye." It seemed a long time before I recovered myself enough to sit down and turn my face to the window.
You see, Marcel Blaye was the name on the Swiss passport which I had bought for $500 that morning in Vienna. I had thought I was getting a clever forgery, even to the Hungarian visa which the Russians had consistently refused me as John Stodder, American. I had taken for granted that Marcel Blaye of Geneva was a figment of the forger’s imagination. I had complimented Herr Figl on the quick job he’d done, even to the ugly red stain on the cover which made the passport look used.
The girl had said, "You even look a great deal like him," when she’d first entered the compartment. That explained the similarity in statistics—the same height, six feet, the same weight, 178 pounds, the same black hair and brown eyes, even a similar scar on the upper right cheek. The age on the passport was thirty-five, two years older than I. Figl had said it was a meaningless error in transcribing from the notes I’d given him the night before. In reality, all the filthy Austrian had done was to change the photograph. He’d stolen the passport from Marcel Blaye’s corpse.
I don’t know how long we sat in silence before I glanced at my watch. Fifteen—no, fourteen minutes to Hegyshalom, the Hungarian border station. There would be a general alarm at all frontiers for the murderer of Marcel Blaye, for the man who had killed him in Vienna and robbed him of his passport.
I stood up and faced the girl. "Listen," I said. "I believe you. Don’t ask me why but I know you’re telling the truth. I’m going to help you. You’ve got to trust me. We’ve got to leave this tram."
There wasn’t any time to tell her my story. She wouldn’t have believed it anyway. She’d have thought I was in league with the man in the corridor. How else could I have received Marcel Blaye’s passport—and his seat on the Orient Express?
I opened the door an inch, ready to slam and bolt it again, but the corridor was deserted. I turned to tell the girl to follow me and saw her standing on the seat, reaching into the baggage rack. I started to say we couldn’t take any baggage until I saw she had fished a fat Manila envelope from a suitcase. She could stick that in her pocket; we’d have to abandon everything else.
She followed me through the darkened corridors. When we neared the end of the last car, I whispered to her to wait until I called.
I walked to the end of the corridor. There was a Russian guard on the back platform, a carbine slung over his shoulder, his face nearly hidden by the collar of his greatcoat.
I went into the toilet, locked the door, and took the roll of paper from the hook. I unrolled the paper until it made a heap in the corner. Then I touched my lighter to the pile. I unlocked the door and went to the platform.
"Fire," I said to the guard in Russian. "There’s fire in the toilet. The train is on fire."
He slowly took the carbine from his shoulder, leaned it against the vestibule wall and then walked deliberately past me into the corridor, without a word. I watched him go into the toilet. When he’d shut the door, I waved to the girl to come to the platform. We could hear him splashing water from the basin onto the blazing paper.
The train was moving slowly, climbing steadily. The smoke from the laboring engine swirled onto the platform.
"Jump," I told the girl. She landed in the drifted snow piled high alongside the track.
I tossed the guard’s carbine. Then I jumped.
Copyright © 1951 by Robert B. Parker. All rights reserved.